PLYMOUTH, N.H. – Presidential contender John Edwards is introducing a $400 million plan Monday to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, including those recently returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under Edwards' plan, veterans could seek counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder outside the Veterans Health Administration system; the number of counselors would increase; and family members would be employed to identify cases of PTSD.
Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, was scheduled to introduce the five-point plan during a speech at New Hampshire's Plymouth State University.
"I strongly believe we must restore the sacred contract we have with our veterans and their families, and that we must begin by reforming our system for treating PTSD. We also must act to remove the stigma from this disorder," Edwards said in prepared remarks his campaign provided to The Associated Press. "Warriors should never be ashamed to deal with the personal consequences of war."
Edwards said that despite his opposition to how the war has been waged, the enlisted men and women deserve the nation's support when they complete their service.
"We must stand by those who stand by us. When our service men and women sacrifice so much to defend our freedom and secure peace around the world, we have a moral obligation to take care of them and their families," he said.
A recent study of Veterans Affairs records showed that the number veterans with PTSD increased by almost 20,000 during the last fiscal year -- a nearly 70 percent jump.
Edwards said the Bush administration's extension of tours to 15 months has only exacerbated the situation, and he promised to increase the time given to service members between deployment. A Defense Department study earlier this year showed that inadequate time stateside led to higher rates of PTSD or aggravated mental stress from service in the field.
Edwards' campaign said there are too few trained counselors in the networks available to veterans. As such, they avoid seeking care because of the wait or the stigma. Instead, Edwards said he would increase counseling and training for counselors and allow veterans to seek treatment outside of the existing system.
The VA currently has a backlog of as many as 600,000 claims, increasing delays for initial treatment by up to six months, according to the campaign. Edwards pledged the entire backlog would be eliminated by Memorial Day 2009 -- four months after he might take office -- and would cut the processing time by half.
Edwards' plan also would provide a comprehensive medical examination, which would be part of a "Homefront Redeployment Plan" provided to every veteran. Edwards said veterans don't receive their first examinations for months or years after leaving the service, making it more difficult to determine whether an injury is service-related or not.
The Edwards campaign said the government could pay for the program through closing tax loopholes and more efficient tax collection.